Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Novelty Is The Beginning Of How We Are Meant To Learn


I often watch the Great British Bake Off, a competition show that good-naturedly pits amateur bakers against one another. I don't bake myself, but I find the show relaxing. After 13 seasons, there are no surprises, the jokes are predictably corny, and the contestants, hosts, and judges seem like kind, bland, well-intended people. Each episode runs about an hour. It's been years since I've made to the end of one before dozing off. In other words, it's a program I choose to watch when the goal is an early night.

Last night, however, I chose to watch a German revenge thriller called Kleo. I've never seen anything quite like it. It is complex and strange. I was so eager to know what was going to happen next that I was up half the night.

In other words, the first show tends to turn my brain off, while the second definitely turns my brain on. In the most basic vernacular, I would say that I've grown bored with the baking show, while the thriller offers me something new. There was a time when I found GBBO more stimulating, when I might watch several episodes back-to-back, but the novelty has worn off.

I'm currently reading Christine Caldwell's book Bodyfulness. She writes:

"Researchers have found that the learning process begins when the nervous system, which monitors our inner and outer environment largely below our awareness, senses a contrast . . . This novelty wakes up certain parts of the brain, which then focus attention on the new stimuli and gather sensory data about that new thing . . . if it creates a contrast with what we are used to, then our conscious brain lights up and we start focusing our senses toward that new experience. We consciously take in the new experiential data, and if we feel sufficiently drawn to it or emotionally invested in it, we will commit this new experience to memory, which is another way of saying that we have just learned something. This also explains why we have difficulty learning things that we don't care about."

Novelty is an under appreciated aspect of how humans are designed to learn. I often think about how I learned to drive a car. As a 16-year-old, I really cared about learning to drive. The first time I got behind the wheel of our family car, however, I nearly drove into a ditch. In the beginning, the novelty (or contrast with what I was used to) was rather extreme. I had to concentrate on everything -- which pedal to press, operating the turn indicator, my speed and direction. But as I committed these new experiences to memory, as I learned to drive, I found that I needed to commit less and less conscious attention to the routine tasks to the point that I could carry on conversations, fret about homework deadlines, or anticipate the weekends. Some people have become so "bored" with the process that they text message or watch videos while driving. It's such a problem, in fact, that we spend millions a year on public service campaigns designed to remind people to pay attention as they drive.

We are constantly surveying our environments in search of novelty. Our first filter is whether or not the new thing poses a danger. After that, however, our next filter is whether or not this new thing is in some way relevant to us. Is it interesting? Confusing? Exciting? Useful? Is this new thing or stimuli or experience or person something I want to understand or learn more about? If so, then learning is a natural self-motivated process. 

If our brains determine it is not relevant, however, which is the case with a large percentage of the crap we're taught in school, then learning becomes a heavy lift for both teachers and children. Since we've decided that the hierarchy gets to decide what the children must learn, and by when, we drain the process of the natural motivation triggered by novelty and relevancy. We then have to refill it with a system of rewards and punishments. We scold teachers to to make otherwise boring stuff  "relevant," pitting them against Mother Nature. And worst of all, when a child can't learn what we want them to learn, we set them to tasks of mind numbing repetition and rote memorization.

School is not typically set up around the concept of novelty. On the contrary, our idea of school tends to be one of predictability and uniformity. Even our curricula tend to be based on the idea of slowly building learning one step at a time, meaning that we rarely create the contrasts that our brains are designed to seek out as opportunities to learn. This is probably why children seem most "alive" (often interpreted as misbehavior) when the tedium is interrupted by field trips, substitute teachers, or broken water mains. It also probably explains why recess is many children's favorite part of the day: this is the one part of their day where they are free to pursue novelty, not as a break from learning, but as the essence of what it means to learn.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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